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AORN Blog - The Periop Life

3 Actions to Keep Stress from Hijacking Your Brain

Effects of Stress
June 20, 2021


Nurses know the "fight or flight" rush of adrenaline that gives you energy during a case. But, the long haul of COVID-19 requires an adrenaline push every case, every day to keep up, and it's taking a toll.

Studies show that chronic fatigue, which nurses often experience, can block your brain from effective higher-order thinking such as decision making and problem solving. Menial yet critical tasks such as counting surgical items can become very challenging as our brain struggles with accuracy and attention.

A constant flood of adrenaline also ups our cortisol levels and makes us feel chronically fatigued, according to stress experts Spencer Byrum and Amy Bair, PhD, PMP, BCB.

"Stress is demanding so much of your brain and your body today, and that can adversely impact your performance and focus," Bair says. "While the stress isn't going away for us, we can reprogram our bodies to react differently to it."

Bair uses her training in performance psychology, advanced biofeedback, and applied psychophysiology practices to help people in high-stress work environments sustain healthy peak performance.

She works closely with Byrum, a former pilot and expert in high reliability to help healthcare systems reprogram how they help their teams to better process stressful situations.

Slow Down Your Stress Response

Just as an athlete must rest sore muscles, perioperative nurses need to rest their brains and their bodies to ensure mental health for peak performance.

It may sound impossible, but Bair and Byrum say it's actually very doable to slow down your stress response with Heart Rate Variability training — a mechanism you can use to dial up adrenaline during "golden" moments when you need it and turn it down when you don't need it in order to maximize your resources and resiliency.

Here are three actions they suggest to help incorporate Heart Rate Variability training into your day so you can rest between stress and bring your "A" game to the OR.

  1. Breathe
    Plan ahead between cases when you know you will have even a minute or two of down time and use that time for breathing. Try taking one big slow breath in and release the breath slowly to get started. Breathe slow and deep like this for one full minute, or two or three minutes if you can. (Check your smartwatch for an app that reminds you to breathe).
  2. Practice Progressive Muscle Relaxation
    To give your body a break and release tension, try this technique by focusing on one muscle group from top to bottom. Start with your neck muscles. As you take a breath in, tense the muscles and then as you breathe out, relax the muscles. Keep doing this for each set of muscles down to your feet.
  3. Get Good Sleep
    Your body needs time to recover. Practice healthy sleep habits such as turning off electronics for a period of time before conking out. Make time to get enough hours of sleep (aim for at least six) to wake up rested, recharged, and reenergized.

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